Not the First Time Darwin Suffered Rebuke by the Hallowed Scientific Order

“Extra, Extra! Read all about it! Darwin may have gotten the origin of life wrong!” Wow, with this being a first (not)—these headlines this past week sent my world-view reeling! How could an icon like Charles Darwin have gotten the conditions for the origins of life wrong? Naturally, I breathlessly read with riveted interest both the news articles and the original paper published in Nature: Ecology and Evolution.

In an 1871 letter penned to his friend Joseph Dalton Hooker, Darwin surmised one could conceive of life emerging “. . . in some warm little pond with all sort of ammonia and phosphoric salts,—light, heat, electricity present . . .”. This view as to early conditions for life has experienced controversy as several recent studies have pointed to a birthing place that was anything like that “warm little pond,” but rather the harsh conditions of large pH gradients, high salinity, and hot temperatures associated with the hydrothermal environment of an early ocean. 

The point here is not necessarily that Darwin’s assumptions were wrong this time, but that anyone expresses such surprise, since Master Darwin got many things wrong (bet you didn’t know that)! The most obvious of his errant pontifications was reckoning the cell to be little more than a blob of protoplasm, thereby being an excellent vehicle for evolutionary change. In defense of the naturalist, very little was known about cells at the time, and it wasn’t until technology enabled biologists and biochemists to peer more closely at the insides of cells, did we appreciate the degree to which these are complex factories of molecular motors, vehicles, tracks, and machines. I’ll give Darwin a pass on this one, for now.

Alright… outside of these two examples, certainly Darwin’s record is unassailable, deserving of no Pinocchio’s right? I mean, otherwise, history would have told us of such disputes – making us ever aware whenever reading about the history of biological thought (after all, we all learned Lamarckian inheritance is bunk, right?). We might even be tempted to believe that the man has enjoyed the status of being relatively unopposed in his thinking! Wrong. 

Louis Agassiz, a Swiss-born scientist of much greater letters (having earned a Ph.D. from Erlangen; an M.D. from Munich), much greater training (studied with French naturalist Georges Cuvier), and distinction (founded Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology) than Darwin, opposed his theory from the very beginning. Darwin, recognizing the stature of this intellectual giant sent him a copy of his famous manuscript, hoping to receive an endorsement. What he got was a rebuke; the elder scientist arguing Darwin’s inferences on the history of life had no support whatsoever in the fossil record – but rather contradicted it, stating that the actual animal remains were the true eye-witnesses as to life’s history (see Meyer, S.C., Darwin’s Doubt: The Explosive Origin of Animal Life and the Case for Intelligent Design. 2013). 

“Okay,” you might respond, “no big deal, just one notable scientist found fault with Darwin’s assumptions”. Wrong again.

Adam Sedgewick, professor of biology and geology at Cambridge University, and a mentor to the young Darwin similarly concluded he had “. . . leaped beyond the evidence.” In an 1859 letter to Darwin, the aging Sedgewick remarked concerning Origin that parts of it made him laugh till his sides were sore, and other parts he read with sorrow, lamenting that his former student abandoned “that tram-road of all solid physical truth – the true method of induction.” 

There are still other notable and well-credentialed scientists in Darwin’s day and since, who turned a skeptical eye towards Darwin’s assumptions, yet space does not permit their mention. 

One could wonder if the discourse between Darwin and Agassiz, and Darwin and Sedgewick played out today as back then, if the New York Times would publish with an, “Extra, extra, read all about it! Darwin got it wrong, having been rebuked by top scientists.” Probably not.

Emily has had a lifelong appreciation for science, teaching, and research. She graduated summa cum laude from California State University, Fresno with a BS degree in molecular biology and a minor in cognitive psychology. As an undergraduate, she conducted summer research in immunology, microbiology, behavioral and cognitive psychology, scanning tunneling microscopy and genetics; she also published research in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, and co-authored a chapter on scanning tunneling microscopy. She is currently completing a Master’s degree in Instructional Design and Technology at University of Cincinnati and a Certificate in Apologetics with the Talbot School of Theology at Biola University. Emily has had the joy of teaching high school chemistry, organic chemistry, physics, anatomy & physiology, and pre-engineering classes over the last thirteen years. As a former Darwinian evolutionist, Emily enjoys stating the case for intellectual agency, considering the arguments posited by the intelligent design movement as much more credible than those proffered by Darwinists.

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